How To Know and Understand the Trinity

Finally, then, it seems best to me to let the images and the shadows go, as being deceitful and very far short of the truth; and clinging myself to the more reverent conception, and resting upon few words, using the guidance of the Holy Ghost, keeping to the end as my genuine comrade and companion the enlightenment which I have received from him, and passing through this world to persuade all others also to the best of my power to worship Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the one Godhead and power. To him belongs all glory and honor and might forever. Amen. (Gregory Nazianzus, Theological Orations, V.33).

A thing may be reasonably proved either by going to the root of the matter and producing a cogent demonstration…or by accepting it and then showing the consequences of the evidence…
The first method of proof is serviceable in dealing with such truths as God’s unity. But the second must be adopted when we would show forth the truth of the Blessed Trinity. We start with acceptance, and then afterwards mat give recommending reasons, not that they sufficiently demonstrate the mystery. (Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Ia.xxxii. 1)

Now over against all those who want to base the doctrine of the Trinity on rational grounds, we must undoubtedly maintain that we owe our knowledge of this doctrine solely to God’s special revelation. Scripture alone is the final ground for the doctrine of the Trinity. (Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, II, 329).

The doctrine of the Trinity is presuppositional. That is to say, one cannot demonstrate the necessity or veracity of the doctrine from reason alone. Not only is it a supernatural dogma, it is a supra-natural doctrine, and as such can only be understood as it is supernaturally revealed by God in Scripture.

Gregory, Aquinas, and Bavinck all are saying the same thing: the Trinity is only first and compellingly known through Scripture. Though there are countless analogies, there are none that are adequate. As Gregory writes in the statement immediately preceding the above quote, “In a word, there is nothing which presents a standing point to my mind in these illustrations from which to consider the object which I am trying to represent to myself, unless one may indulgently accept one point of the image while rejecting the rest.” If there were a perfect analogy for the Trinity, the Trinity would not be perfectly unique. The Trinity would not be God.

To know what God wishes you to know about the Trinity, you need not plumb the depths of metaphysics, philosophy, mysticism, etc. God has revealed what you need to know about the Trinity in Scripture. You will never comprehend the Trinity: just as you will never comprehend the Father, or the Son, or the Spirit. But you will apprehend all God wishes you to know by studying the revelation of the Trinity in Scripture. While every text that says something about any of the Persons reveals something about the Trinity, there are multitudes of texts that speak of the Three. Search these texts out. Study them. Acquaint now thyself with God and be at peace.

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The Trinity in Scripture: Acts 16

Acts 16 presents another text illustrative of the fluidity in which the New Testament speaks of the Trinity.

And they went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been forbidden by the Holy Spirit to speak the word in Asia. And when they had come up to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them. So, passing by Mysia, they went down to Troas. And a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. (Act 16:6-10)

In verse 6 we have mention of the “Holy Spirit;” in verse 7 “the Spirit of Jesus;” in verse 10 “God.” In one sense, each of the members of the Trinity is mentioned—in “reverse” order—the Holy Spirit, Jesus, and God (the Father). Yet one has strong reason to assert that all three references in the passage refer to the Holy Spirit.

Grammatically possible meanings of “the Spirit of Jesus” include:

• Jesus’ spirit—as in, Jesus somehow divided his spirit from himself and communicated to the apostle through that spirit. This is problematic because of the violence it does to the person of Jesus. It also seems to introduce a fourth member into the Monarchy. Now we have, the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit, and the Spirit of Jesus.
• Jesus the Spirit—grammatically it could taken as, “the Spirit which is Jesus.” This is problematic because of its obviously modalistic direction. Now Jesus is the Father, now Jesus is the Son, now Jesus is the Spirit. I imagine the modern heretical group of Oneness Pentecostals might embrace this interpretation, but anyone orthodox would shun it.
• The Spirit from Jesus—this is the best interpretation for at least two reasons. First, it maintains the distinction of the persons within the Trinity without introducing even more divisions. Second, it fits with what we already know from the book of Acts about the relationship between Jesus and the Spirit. While the Spirit is often described as sent from the Father, Acts 2:32-33 teaches that this sending to man was mediated by Jesus. Yes, God has poured out the Spirit on believers. But the Spirit was first given to Jesus who in turn “poured out” the blessing of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:33).

Once we comprehend that the Holy Spirit is the one who forbade the preaching of the gospel in Asia Minor (16:6-7); it is difficult to not attribute the call to Macedonia as the work of the Holy Spirit as well (16:10). If taken this way, the Holy Spirit is referred to in this passage as “the Holy Spirit,” “the Spirit of Jesus,” and “God.” In defense of this understanding, the same phenomenon was seen in Acts 5. Peter asked Ananias why he had lied to the Holy Spirit and then asserted Ananias had lied to God. So in Acts 16 we have mention of all three persons, though we only see the work of the Holy Spirit.

In this passage, as in so many others, the words of Gregory of Nazianzus,

This I give you to share, and to defend all your life, the One Godhead and Power, found in the Three in Unity, and comprising the Three separately, not unequal, in substances or natures, neither increased nor diminished by superiorities or inferiorities; in every respect equal, in every respect the same; just as the beauty and the greatness of the heavens is one; the infinite conjunction of Three Infinite Ones, Each God when considered in Himself; as the Father so the Son, as the Son so the Holy Ghost; the Three One God when contemplated together; Each God because Consubstantial; One God because of the Monarchia. No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light.

Tremble at the Mystery. Amen.